Donald Trump's campaign is also a huge political science experiment

Normally, the two major parties engage in presidential campaign tactics that largely mirror each other in things like staffing and ad spending. This time academics get to observe something very different.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump signs autographs after speaking at a rally on June 18 in Phoenix. He has an unusual campaign – becoming the presumptive nominee without scaling up advertising and campaign staff in traditional ways.

You know who’s really happy about the way Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is going? Political scientists.

That’s because whether Mr. Trump wins or loses, academics who study these elections for a living are going to find out stuff they think is really interesting. Trump’s campaign is so different from a normal effort – at least to this point – that it’s practically a giant real-time political science experiment.

Take spending on campaign ads. Many political scientists think ad buys do swing voters one way or another, but only briefly. In presidential races the effects of ads generally cancel out, since the two candidates generally have lots of money and counter each other spot for spot. But they’re not sure, since this is a difficult thing to figure out.

But what if one candidate didn’t respond to an ad buy against them? The residual effect of a continued assault might end up producing a permanent drop in their polls. Or maybe not. We don’t know. If only one candidate would just sit there and let the other pummel away, maybe we could figure that out and get some data to illustrate the theory. But in the real world that wouldn’t happen, right?

Except that it is, pretty much. According to NBC News figures, in June, the Clinton campaign has spent at least $23 million in ads for eight battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. In those same eight states, over that same period of time, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee combined have spent $0.

“Trump helping to isolate any impact of Clinton’s ad spending. His campaign continues to be a boon to social science,” tweeted the Monkey Cage political science blog of the Washington Post over the weekend.

Or think about the size of campaign staffs. Generally, the Republican and Democratic candidates head organizations that are close to mirror images. Both parties usually have about the same amount of money and don’t want to get left behind in a personnel arms race.

Does that matter? Is it possible to just outsource lots of campaign activities, like get-out-the-vote preparation and polling?

With Trump it looks like we’ll find out. At the moment the Hillary Clinton campaign has a headquarters staff of over 700. Trump’s is under 100. Even some of his own aides are becoming frustrated with Trump’s failure to fill such normally key positions as traveling press secretary and communications direction, writes Bloomberg News today.

“Trump is facing pressure from within his own inner circle – including from donors – who are growing increasingly frustrated with what they see as a lack of coordination and communication,” according to Bloomberg’s Kevin Cirilli, Michael C. Bender, and Jennifer Jacobs.

Maybe Trump will staff up now that he’s fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. But his organization is still so much smaller than Mrs. Clinton’s that it will take him a long time to catch up. If that’s what he wants. It’s possible he’s still convinced that a lean HQ that outsources activity is the way to go.

Taken together, all this is perhaps the biggest reason that nominal Trump backers such as House Speaker Paul Ryan continue to speak about the presumptive nominee of their party in at best lukewarm terms. It’s a huge motivation for the continued #DumpTrump effort to line up convention delegates willing to stage a revolt in Cleveland. They’re worried about Trump’s continued undisciplined statements, but they’re terrified that his actual campaign effort is a disaster.

“In essence, Trump is running a real-time experiment in a new form of presidential campaigning. And the early numbers suggest that the experiment is shaping up to be a failure,” writes Washington Post data journalist expert Philip Bump.

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